Six Stories Tall | Stage review

In our comfort-zone-oriented society, it’s always safer for a theater company to do revivals of familiar material than to gamble on something unknown. (See, for example, the three productions of Cinderella this holiday season, not to mention two It’s a Wonderful Lifes, and a dozen or so Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols.) Which makes Adventure Stage Chicago that much more admirable for forgoing the usual fare in favor of tackling an energetic, eclectic and (relatively) new show, Six Stories Tall.

Written by Marco Ramirez and geared toward the tween/early teen set, the production comprises six short plays, all different in style but united by a common theme. To make sure the kids don’t miss that point, the hip cast initially engages the audience directly, before the house lights dim and the “fourth wall” falls. Each of the stories, the actors explain, will tackle the question, “What does it mean to be a hero?”—and then they ask kids for their answers. (It’s Adventure Stage’s smart signature move.)

Story-wise, the opening tale is the weakest—a young man from a starving village falls in love with a mermaid, but the other townsfolk predictably don’t share his reaction. Still, the lesson in making hard choices to do the right thing is clear. Thankfully, the show quickly leaps forward in energy with “B Minor,” about a small town in the South visited by a devil in human guise. Director Tom Arvetis, working with a cleverly simple and malleable set by designer Brandon Wardell, stages a great entrance for the devil: Clad in a black overcoat, he emerges atop a high platform in slow motion. The audience rightly roared for the story’s hero, an orphaned girl, who avenges her father by besting the devil in a rap competition. (It might sound absurd but it totally works.)

The next segment, “I am not Batman,” is a stunning two-hander between energetic percussionist Kevin Brown and the kinetic Lance Newton, whose gymnast-level moves seem almost superheroic. “Lupe and the Red Line Monster”—which clearly fine-tunes Ramirez’s script to give it a local flavor—is another winner. Serving up video-game realness, the title character, played by Alyssa Vera Ramos, overcomes ennui by battling a pair of bizarre (but funny) ninja warriors who invade her el ride home.

While not every segment is as strong as those two, the remaining pair—including a fable about a boy who paints the city purple to help his abuelo (grandpa)—earn their place. And the script benefits overall by Adventure Stage’s excellent slate of performers, who move and groove to DJ Mikhail Fiksel’s live beats.

Commissioned and first performed in 2008 by the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. (where it made its debut under the perfectly descriptive but unwieldy title Mermaids, Monsters and the World Painted Purple), Six Stories Tall is just now getting its second complete production anywhere, which tells you something about how challenging it is to produce a new show. While this one doesn't involve Santa, a manger or a dreidel, that's no matter: With Batman, the devil and evil ninjas instead, your kids won’t care.

Six Stories Tall runs through December 13 at Adventure Stage’s home at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N Noble St (within the Northwestern University Settlement House; 773-342-4141, Tickets are $15–$25.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)